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The first thing that went through Marly Santora's mind when she heard the word "freddo" - the Italian word for cold - uttered as she stood on the stage at the Scripps National Spelling Bee Thursday morning was, "I don't know this."
She ended up spelling the word "fredo," which was followed by the dreaded "ding" of the bell, signaling she was out of the competition.
But the 13-year-old eighth-grader from Komarek School in North Riverside walked off the stage having accomplished her goal, leaving the world of spelling bee competitions as one of the nation's top 50.
"Going into [Thursday's semifinals] I had already reached my goal," said Marly, who was one of nine spellers knocked out in the first round of the semis, which were televised live nationally on ESPN2. "I just hoped I did well in round four. I was just hoping for the best."
Until it was her turn on the stage inside the Maryland Ballroom at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in National Harbor outside Washington, D.C., Santora was feeling pretty confident.
"Out of all the words that came before mine, I knew almost all of them," she said.
But when confronted with freddo, she knew she was in trouble.
"I needed to ask whatever questions I could," she said. "I took my best guess, but it wasn't right."
Marly walked off the stage to the couch off to the side and sat there while she was greeted by her parents.
"I was disappointed," Marly said. "When they ding the bell ... there were so many emotions going on in my head. But after a while I was able to compose myself. I wanted to root for everybody who was left."
Last week's National Spelling Bee was Marly's second. In 2011, she made it to the national bee for the first time after winning the suburban Chicago competition. Santora did well on the written test and then answered two preliminary words correctly, but she fell short of semifinals by just two points.
After that experience, Marly said she was determined to reach the semifinals this year. In February, she won her second straight suburban Chicago title and then struggled through a written test that was reportedly much harder than last year's. And her two preliminary words, which she also spelled correctly, were tough as well - "elaborative" and "Barmecidal."
"The written test was significantly harder than the year before," said Gerry Santora, Marly's father.
But the difficulty of the preliminary rounds melted away when Marly heard her name called as semifinalists were announced on the afternoon of May 30. Of the 50 semifinalists called at random, Marly's name was the 34th to be announced.
"I was hanging onto every word," she said. "When they called me, I was so shocked, I jumped up and ran onto the stage."
The semifinal words appeared to be tougher as well. Where it took four rounds to whittle the semifinalists down to a final group of 13, it took just three rounds this year to thin the field of 50 to nine finalists.
"Even the best kids get words they've forgotten or have never seen," said Gerry, "and you have to rely on your skills."
But fortune also comes into play, he said. Despite knowing just about every other word thrown out at the semifinalists in that first round, Marly got one she simply didn't know.
"A big part of the spelling bee is the luck of the draw," Gerry said. "Every other word to her was familiar."
When Marly graduates from Komarek on June 7, her days as a spelling bee whiz will be over. She'll attend Riverside-Brookfield High School next year.
"Not studying [spelling words] is going to be weird," she said.
But the nation's top spellers ought to know they'll still have to contend with the Santora family. Marly's sister, Audrey, will carry on the tradition.
Audrey tied for second in the Komarek School spelling bee this year and won the school's spelling bee in 2010, beating out her older sister.
"She has three chances left to make it," Marly said.